Proactive Quality and Sustainability: Reduced waste through microbial quality management

Published: 21-Feb-2023

Sustainability is a word that we hear often in the news and advertisements. When you look at the frequency of the word “sustainability” from printed sources published between 1500-2019, we don't see anything until about 1970. But beginning in 1970, there is a dramatic spike in usage, which is seen across the globe in multiple languages

Sustainability is a word that we hear often in the news and advertisements. When you look at the frequency of the word “sustainability” from printed sources published between 1500-2019, we don't see anything until about 1970. But beginning in 1970, there is a dramatic spike in usage, which is seen across the globe in multiple languages. Sustainability is certainly a hot topic across all industries, and home and personal care is no different

The concept of sustainability is to reduce impact on the environment, such as formulating with sustainably sourced raw materials, and reducing your company's carbon footprint. Sustainability in business must go beyond marketing definitions to create sustainable and equitable outcomes for a company’s stakeholders, employees, and the communities it serves in conjunction with the ethical and sustainable sourcing of materials and components throughout the supply chain, from beginning to end of a product’s life. Microbiologists can have a big impact on sustainability, specifically in the areas of manufacturing efficiency and waste management through sustainable manufacturing - reducing carbon footprint and ensuring environmental responsibility and safety.

Efficiency is key to sustainable manufacturing

One of the most impactful ways to drive sustainability improvements in manufacturing is to increase efficiency. Increasing manufacturing efficiency can be realized through many initiatives like reducing energy use, carbon emissions, waste, and resource usage. A major culprit of waste generation and lost resources in manufacturing is with the introduction of microbial contamination. Through better microbial quality control, you can be more sustainable.

Having a more effective contamination control strategy can increase efficiency and support a sustainable mindset. There are three specific areas of contamination control that can impact sustainability – rapid microbial detection, environmental monitoring (EM), and microbial identification accuracy. To reduce microbial contamination, you need to be able to detect the contamination quickly, accurately identify it, and find its original source to prevent it from happening again. Reducing microbial contamination is the one of the outcomes of effective environmental and quality control.

The impact of a microbial contamination on sustainability

Here are two scenarios of microbial contamination and the various impacts they can have on manufacturing. In scenario 1, a finished product failed microbial limits test (MLT) and was determined to be contaminated with microorganisms. The product was not released into the market. Here we see localised impact on the manufacturing plant itself, but no less significant. You loose production capacity and a lot of time and money that goes into equipment decontamination. Entire lines may be shut down. That equates to lost revenue and product waste that you need to properly dispose of. The product composition could be hazardous or non-hazardous and each category of waste has different disposal requirements and degrees of impact on the environment.

In scenario 2, a finished product initially passed MLT testing and was released to the market. However, after release, the product was found to contain harmful microorganisms requiring a recall. You have the same production issues as scenario 1, but now it's much more widespread and puts consumer safety at risk. The contaminated product from the market must be removed but consumers could be throwing it in the trash so not all of it will make it back to the company. The company loses control over the complete process, negatively impacting the environment and the company’s sustainability efforts. Each of these two scenarios result in increased waste and lost efficiency at varying degree.

There are better ways to increase your efficiency

Efficiency in microbial detection is determined by the speed of the microbial limits test that you use. The most common method is the pour plate, a method that has been used since the 1800s. This method is considered a traditional method, familiar to microbiologists and takes 3-7 days to get results. The days required to obtain the test result are the same days where product is held in inventory; no value is being added to the work-in-process, and free cash flow productivity drops. The waiting time creates increased inventory and the need for safety stock. Large space requirements for held inventory waste time and money, which has a real impact on carbon footprint. Faster efficiency, faster production, and reduced space have additive positive impact on your sustainability in carbon footprint and energy usage.

Implementing a rapid microbial testing system represents a new best practice for manufacturers. Shorter production cycle times results in improved agility and customer responsiveness, cutting down the 3-7 day hold time to just 24 hours. A rapid method will get help get products from the warehouse to the shelf faster, significantly reducing your production timeline. Together, these benefits create a more predictable supply chain for you and your customers. What would your reduction in storage cost be if could you cut out up to 6 days in your production schedule? Faster detection can help minimize the environmental and financial impact in the case of a contamination event. You have a faster response with reduced waste, which will have an overall reduced carbon footprint for your company.

Working smarter, faster, and better

The idea of detecting faster is even more powerful when you understand what microorganisms are present or resident in your facility and ones that are transient. By monitoring your manufacturing environment, controls can be put into place to protect your products from contamination. The most effective way to do this is to track and trend bioburden counts and microbial identifications using a validated EM program. EM acts as an early warning surveillance system, allowing you to see changes in your manufacturing environment and give you the opportunity to intervene quickly.

Microbes can come from all sorts of places, including water supplies, operators, HVAC systems, raw materials, and even the equipment itself. Without a baseline of the environment, every contamination event puts you at square one to identify the cause. If you don’t find the source and take corrective action, the manufacturing system can get contaminated again and again. If contamination occurs in your product, it’s important to examine your EM tracking and trending data to see where the contaminant originated.

By routinely sampling and identifying organisms, manufacturers can detect possible contaminants and identify sites where there is risk of contaminating the product. Having a reliable method with a robust sampling program and detailed trending will facilitate investigations. You save time and money with faster and more effective microbial investigations and have the potentiality to reduce waste by catching a contamination earlier. If you find microbial contamination too late, it ends up in your product. The product is unusable and must now be discarded, increasing your waste streams; not catching it early has a big impact.

A contamination event can cause you to shut down production lines and maybe even your entire water system, impacting your whole facility. In addition to lost capacity and revenue, there's time and money that is taking up with decontaminating your equipment. You should regularly be checking your cleaning and disinfection process. Organisms can adapt. The solution is to be proactive by establishing a validated environmental monitoring program and then utilise methods for accurate and reliable microbial detection to identification what you have in your facility.

Accurate identification helps your sustainability bottom line

You create less overall waste with an accurate identification method. You’re not redoing tests, wasting resources, and have reduced chance for errors that could result in a recall. Some of the most common microbial identification methods are phenotypic methods because they are seen as low-cost
procedures. These methods are often subjective and can frequently require retesting causing the overall cost for identification to be higher. Phenotypic methods tend to have limited libraries that can restrict whether you get an identification at all. The wrong ID could give you results that put you on the wrong path. For example, the microorganism identified is innocuous and non-pathogenic, but your method identifies it as a pathogen leading to disposal of good product. Alternatively, you could have an identification result that says the microorganism is non-pathogenic, but it’s actually a pathogen. This result has an effect on much more than just your sustainability; there’s uncontrolled waste and most importantly risk to consumer safety.

The data integrity of your method is part of your accuracy, too. As you move away from phenotypic to prototypic or genotypic methods, the accuracy and reproducibility increases. Recent development of microbial identification using MALDI, known as a prototypic, is more accurate than phenotypic methods. The technology is fast, so you get quick results, which has a big impact on efficiency, making this method a great sustainable identification solution.

Everyone in a company can have a positive influence on sustainability, including the microbiology laboratory. An effective contamination control strategy partnered with a strategic EM program can drive sustainability benefits. For the microbiology lab, this means detecting microorganisms faster and accurately identifying them quickly. The microbiologist will be able to analyze risk more accurately, determine root cause analysis of microorganisms, remediate potential contaminations faster, and prevent excess waste generation. All together, these actions will increase the production efficiency of our facility, which is the key to sustainability in manufacturing.

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